Amazon says it can’t deliver Geert Lovink’s book Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture for weeks, but seeing the table of contents, I realised that of the two essays in it that are actually apparently about blogging, at least one is online (thanks to Martin G. Larsen, who wrote an impassioned and interesting response to the essay, and received a response, of sorts, from Lovink). The essay in question is the first in the book, and is titled Blogging: The Nihilist Impulse I actually read a draft of it a while back, too.

So I’m reading through it again to see whether I want to use anything from it in my Blogging book. I’m not sure that there’s a lot to use though. The basic idea is that blogs are a medium that is changing our relationship to truth as something that can be objective and absolute, and that they are “decadent artifacts that remotely dismantle the mighty and seductive power of the broadcast media.” He sees this as blogs’ “nihilism”, and ties it into some discussions of nihilism in contemporary philosophy and what he calls cultural cynicism.

But the essay is so heavily filled with generalisations about what blogs are like, with no examples, few sources and little argumentation to back up the assertions, that I don’t think it’s a very useful essay. Perhaps it is primarily useful as a way of explaining blogs to philosophers? It certainly has something in common with the anxiety that many established experts appear to feel when faced with blogs:

As Baudrillard states: “All of our values are simulated. What is freedom? We have a choice between buying one car or buying another car?”[17] And to follow Baudrillard, we could say that blogs are a gift to humankind that no one needs. This is the true shock. Did anyone order the development of blogs? There is no possibility to simply ignore blogs and live the comfortable lifestyle of a twentieth-century “public intellectual”.

Henry Jenkins also initially used this us vs. them rhetoric to talk about bloggers, as Torill and I discussed in our essay “Blogging Thoughts” (pdf). Now he blogs himself. Jakob Nielsen, a well-established though today somewhat controversial usability expert, argues that experts shouldn’t blog. Habermas has expressed concern that intellectuals are “suffocating from the excess of this vitalising element, as if they were overdosing” (Axel Bruns was at Habermas’s lecture and posted a considered response to it on his blog).

The constant generalisations and un-supported assertions no examples are the most frustrating thing in this essay. When Lovink talks about ìthe oft-heard remark that blogs were cynical and nihilistî all I can do is shrug and wonder what he means – have you heard that remark often? I donít think I ever have, except in this essay. Please tell me if everyone else is actually talking about this! Or the assertion that blog culture is only interested in itself , which is supported neither by argument, example nor by other sources. (îHow can blog culture transcend the true, yet boring accusation that it is only interested in itself?î)

There is a presumption that blogs have a symbiotic relationship with the news industry. This thesis is not uncontested. Hypertext scholars track blogs back to the hypercards of the 1980s and the online literature wave of the 1990s, in which clicking from one document to the next was the central activity of the reader. For some reason, the hypertext subcurrent lost out and what
remains is an almost self-evident equation between blogs and the news industry.

I’d be one of those hypertext scholars, I guess – but the argument seems to be missing here, there’s just an assertion that there’s “an almost self-evident equation between blogs and the news industry”. I’m not sure where that assertion comes from, to be honest. In a July 2006 study of bloggers (who were selected through an randomised national telephone survey by Pew Internet Research), 65% of the bloggers interviewed stated that they did not think of their blogging as a form of journalism, although nearly 60% of them in fact ìoftenî or ìsometimesî try to verify facts and reference their sources. It should also be noted that 37% of the bloggers surveyed said that the main topic of their blog was ìmy life and personal experiencesî ñ these are diary-style blogs, and so fact-checking and linking original sources would be entirely irrelevant. These figures show that a clear majority of blogs have little to do with “the news industry”. Lovink doesn’t have a lot of faith in bloggers.

To “blog” a news report doesn’t mean that the blogger sits down and thoroughly analyzes the discourse and circumstances, let alone checks the facts on the ground. To blog merely means to quickly point to news fact through a link and a few sentences that explain why the blogger found this or that factoid interesting or remarkable, or is disagrees with it.

There are of course many blogs that simply do this, but generalising as Lovink does is not a way to help us understand what blogs do. After all, many, perhaps most, news stories published in mainstream media do not involve thorough analysis of the discourse and circumstances, let alone checking the facts on the ground. Good journalism does involve this.

What ordinary blogs create is a dense cloud of “impressions” around a topic. (..) Blogs test. They allow you to see whether your audience is still awake and receptive. In that sense we could also say that blogs are the outsourced, privatized test beds, or rather unit tests of the big media.

This is an interesting point, and might well be the way mainstream media and marketers largely view blogs. I like how Lovinck turns the “empowered blogger” concept upside down, although of course, I refuse to simply look at myself and my fellow bloggers as “outsourced, privatized test beds”. How depressing. And, in a way, how one-sided to see bloggers only from the point of view of mainstream media – it’s rather like the 1970s assumption that audiences were passive recipients of mass media, rather than co-constructors and active fans and choosers. The claim is valuable, though, in showing up the one-sidedness of the opposite assumption, that bloggers are far more powerful than mainstream media. There’s a clear symbiosis between the two.

Other places the words Lovink puts together simply don’t seem to really mean anything. For instance:

Blogging is a nihilistic venture precisely because the ownership structure of mass media is questioned and then attacked. Blogging is a bleed-to-death strategy. Implosion is not the right word. Implosion implies a tragedy and spectacle that is not present here. Blogging is the opposite of the spectacle. It is flat (and yet meaningful).

What on earth does that mean? I presume I have missed out on reading important contemporary philosophy on nihilism – and I expect that those who have read more than I about the spectacle would understand that reference better. Perhaps flatness means something particular in that context. But who is bleeding-to-death? Bloggers or the mass media? Am I, by blogging this, bleeding the mass media to death? It sounds great, in a way, but does it really mean anything?

The core of Lovink’s argument about blogs being nihilistic is, as far as I can tell, expressed in the following paragraph (though of course you should read the whole thing to see whether I’m right or have simply misinterpreted it):

Blogs bring on decay. Each new blog is supposed to add to the fall of the media system that once dominated the twentieth century. This process is not one of a sudden explosion. The erosion of the mass media cannot easily be traced in figures of stagnant sales and the declining readership of newspapers. In many parts of the world, television is still on the rise. What’s declining is the Belief in the Message. That is the nihilist moment, and blogs facilitate this culture as no platform has ever done before. Sold by the positivists as citizen media commentary, blogs assist users in their crossing from Truth to Nothingness. The printed and broadcasted message has lost its aura. News is consumed as a commodity with entertainment value. Instead of lamenting the ideological color of the news, as previous generations have done, we blog as a sign of the regained power of the spirit. As a micro-heroic, Nietzschean act of the pyjama people, blogging grows out of a nihilism of strength, not out of the weakness of pessimism. Instead of time and again presenting blog entries as self-promotion, we should interpret them as decadent artifacts that remotely dismantle the mighty and seductive power of the broadcast media.

I think part of the weirdness of how this reads is that the “we” Lovink is speaking to, and sees himself as part of, is not the “we” of bloggers. But really, despite the meaty sound-bites (“Blogs bring on decay” is used on the back cover of his book), what he’s saying is exactly the same as “the positivists” are saying, isn’t it? And I’m assuming positivist here means people who think blogs are great rather than someone who’ll only believe something is true if it’s scientifically and verifiably proven. Although that’s all rather confusing given the discussion of truth in that paragraph.

There is, fortunately, more explanation of what Lovink means by nihilism further on in the essay.

Gianni Vattimo argues that nihilism is not the absence of meaning but a recognition of the plurality of meanings; it is not the end of civilization but the beginning of new social paradigms, with blogging being one of them. Commonly associated with the pessimistic belief that all of existence is meaningless, nihilism would be an ethical doctrine that there are no moral absolutes or infallible natural laws and that “truth” is inescapably subjective. In media terms, we see this attitude translated into a growing distrust of the output of large commercial news organizations and the spin that politicians and their advisers produce. Questioning the message is no longer a subversive act of engaged citizens but the a priori attitude, even before the TV or PC has been switched on.

Basically, it seems, nihilism isn’t that complicated at all, it’s what most of us seem to assume these days, and what blog “positivists” have argued for ages. So does Lovink actually agree with the positivists, then? But prefers to write what they say in different words?

Based on the table of contents, there is one other chapter in the book that discusses blogging, “Blogging & Building: The Netherlands After Digitization”, and perhaps the other chapters will do. I’m interested to see whether the book really does develop “a general theory of blogging”, as the book description at Amazon claims. That goal certainly isn’t achieved in Blogging: The Nihilist Impulse – I’ll let you know how I like the rest of the book when I have it. Amazon estimates it’ll take a while, though.

5 thoughts on “lovink’s nihilist blogging

  1. JoseAngel

    It sounds as if there’s a heady mixture of wrong-headedness and occasional insights in this book here. Pity, when I heard “Zero comments” I thought “that’s the one for me”, but-. I’ll keep on waiting for the Great Book of Blogging. But maybe it should be the Great Blog of Blogging.

  2. dave

    I think the one place I have heard the “oft heard remark” that “blogs were cynical and nihilistî is on conservative American news programs. Bill O’ Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and company often decry the liberal blogsphere as cynical, nihilistic, and hate filled. Of course they don’t mean nihilistic in the sense that Lovink seems to, but it is interesting that his “oft heard remarks” I have only heard reflected in one segment of media.

  3. Wendell

    This blogs-as-journalism thing really is odd. I always thought of bloggers as chatty geeks only occasionally muttering about off-line affairs. As for oft-heard comments… can’t say that I have. (Then, I don’t listen to “conservative American news programs” so I’m undoubtedly ill-informed.

  4. Jill Walker Rettberg

    Interesting that you guys haven’t heard much about blogs as cynical and nihilistic – except from the far right. I imagine, though, that Lovink must have heard those remarks elsewhere, as I doubt he’d listen much to conservative American new programs.

  5. jill/txt »

    […] Until then, I’ll just continue to be annoyed at the portrayal of bloggers as melancholic – or nihilistic. I suspect it’s largely the authors of these portrayals that are melancholic and nihilistic, rather than the bloggers. Filed under:blog theorising — Jill @ 12:13 [ ] […]

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